Sermon preached by the Rev'd Fr. Donald L. Turner, Vicar, St. Peter's-at-the-Light Episcopal Church, Barnegat Light, New Jersey, October 14, 2018 (Proper 23 - Year B).
St. Mark 10: 17-31
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
The time is around 700 years before the Christian Era. The once united kingdom of Israel is now divided into two nations. The northern part keeps the name Israel. The southern part is called Judah. It is a time of economic prosperity such as the people of both nations had never known before. It is a time of relative peace, except from time to time there is some sabre-rattling from the nation to the north of both of these kingdoms. The nation is Assyria.
Now coming into the story is an obscure shepherd from Judea who has the audacity to preach a message of dire warning, not to his own people. but to the people of the northern kingdom, Israel. And what is the warning? That God stands ready to bring horrible judgment upon them in the form of an invasion of the Assyrian army. Their land will be laid waste, and their political and religious leaders taken captive back to the land from whence these terrifying invaders have come. Armies in those days didn't have the mobility that modern military forces have, which would have made it possible to leave a relatively small occupying force to keep the conquered people subdued, so the trick to maintaining peace in the land was to steal away any people capable of organizing and creating a rebellion. They were taken captive back to the homeland of the conquerers. This was God’s judgment upon the nation of Israel.
Why would God be bringing judgment upon the nation? It is a time of great prosperity — the “stock market” is at an all-time high— and doesn't the Bible itself suggest that prosperity is a sign of God's favor? The first 14 verses of the 28th chapter of the book of Deuteronomy makes it very clear that people who walk in the light of God’s commandments will be blessed with prosperity beyond measure. It is even said that they will be the envy of all the nations of the world. So why does this “Amos,” this crazy shepherd from Judea, preach that God is about to lay low the land and its people? And how could this come at the hands of a lawless, godless people who do not believe in the God of Abraham and Sarah?
The reason is that Amos sees that while the people of Israel are rich in material substance they are poor in their measure of justice and righteousness. Their wealth has corrupted them. They have gotten their wealth through fraud, and by oppressing the poor and the righteous. There is no justice in the land when it comes to the needs and rights of the disadvantaged. This is why Amos warns them that a foreign peoples will destroy their beautiful stone houses and trample down their vast vineyards, leaving everything in their wake utter devastation.
Now fast forward hundreds of years. See Jesus walking on a hillside in Galilee, a province in what was once the northern kingdom of Israel in the day of Amos. A man comes up to Jesus calling him “good.” Jesus replies, as would any devout Jew, that there is no one good but God alone. The man wants to know what he has to do to obtain eternal life. Jesus references six of the ten Commandments, the six having to do with our relationships with each other. This is a good man. In all humility he tells Jesus the truth about himself: he has kept these Commandments. Jesus agrees. This is a very good man, and Jesus takes him to his heart. But, Jesus sees that this man is held captive by his wealth. Wealth in itself is no evil, but wealth does not make it easy for the wealthy person to keep their fortune from being a primary concern. This man’s fortune is his priority, and so he is deeply shaken when Jesus tells him to liquidate his holdings and give the money away to help the poor.
Among the people of God, giving to the poor is a religious obligation. The man likely does his share. But Jesus asks much more of him. Unfortunately, his is not the mobile society as is ours. So to give up his current vocation, to be asked to leave his ancestral home, and to be told to leave his loved ones behind, was truly a radical call. This man cannot do that.
I discovered something very revealing about wealth when I studied this Gospel in preparation for this sermon, something that has never occurred to me before — and how many times have I preached upon this text!
Jesus tells his disciples that it is “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples are utterly taken aback by this, and they ask Jesus, "Then who can be saved?" The epiphany I got when focusing on their question is that they are not just referencing people of mega wealth, but also themselves! Peter, James, John and all the others have given up everything they possess to follow Jesus. Let’s suggest it’s Peter, who is always impulsively blurting out something, sometimes something very profound, sometimes something very inane, who says, “Jesus, if it's so hard for a rich person to be saved, then how can we be saved?”
How is Peter defining wealth? The same way you and I should. Peter has nothing of this world’s goods that hold him back from following Jesus. But he has enough food to sustain strength and health, he has shelter over his head most of the time, he has clothing, he has friends. He may be just one paycheck ahead of poverty, but he's not impoverished. He knows, in contrast, that those who lack these things are the poor, and that he is wealthy by these standards. And so are we. Ask Google, “How rich am I?” and log on to one of the sites given. You'll be absolutely blown away by how wealthy you are compared to billions of other people on this planet! I have no reticence to say, “That includes every one of us!”
So to us who are wealthy, who “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6: 8), Jesus says that we will have our reward in this life, and in the age to come, life eternal. We need not fear the judgment of God if our treasure is in heavenly things.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Copies of Fr. Turner's sermons are always available each Sunday on the table in the rear of the Nave. He advises that you do not take a copy to follow him while he is preaching because he preaches from memory of the manuscript and often departs from the text, especially if he thinks of a good joke! Sermons are not lengthy. The Vicar had a Professor of Homiletics who told the class, "If you can't strike oil in ten minutes, quit boring!"